Friday, 1 October 2010

Meet the band…

Believe it or not these four are worth around a hundred pounds each, considerably more as a set - not bad considering I bought them for under a fiver. It isn’t their value that interests me though; it’s the story behind them.

This isn’t just any old jazz band, these are the Jazz Hounds, the one and only original Jazz Hounds – Johnny (Dinks) Dunn on cornet, Sam (Almond) Thomas on percussion, Cole (Sax Boy) Hawkins on saxophone, and Mr. Willy (The Lion) Smith on piano, that’s him standing at the mike, they couldn’t fit a piano into the globe I guess.

They were the original band for the blues and jazz singer Mamie Smith. Later she had a much bigger band, but this is her original quartet. Back in 1920 Mamie was the first black blues singer to be recorded, and her version of ‘Crazy Blues’ sold over two million records for ‘Okeh Records’.

Mamie was a vaudeville singer, dancer, pianist, actress, and some say started out as agentleman’s companion’ back in Cincinnati, Ohio where she was born. Whether or not this is true, she certainly had a taste for the wild life and was no stranger to drink, drugs, and the weakness that would eventually lay her low, men.

When a young saxophonist, sixteen year old Cole Hawkins joined the band, Mamie couldn’t help herself. Despite at thirty-eight, being twice his age she started an affair with him almost immediately - dropping her pianist and lover of the moment, Willy Smith, like a hot sweet potato.

This didn’t please the Lion at all. Up until then Mamie had been his girl and he’d hoped that they were going to marry. What he didn’t know was that Mamie had been sleeping with Dinks and Almond on and off for years as well, and Sax Boy was just the latest of her conquests.

One night whilst the band was performing at Baron Wilkin's Little Savoy Club, Willy (The Lion) Smith stopped playing his piano and, knocking over his piano stool in his haste and frenzy, pulled a pistol from his black tuxedo jacket and shot young Cole dead through the eye. He was tried for murder in the first degree and went to the electric chair at the Almira correctional facility a year later.

Things were never the same after that. Mamie continued to sing with a new and bigger band, but as the years passed her fame and popularity faded and eventually her public forgot her. She died in New York in 1946 and is buried in Trinity Church Cemetery, just up from Harlem.

Sometimes when I walk past my snow globes I could swear I hear the sound of a jazz band playing and from somewhere in the distance, the dusky, answering, voice of a woman - ‘Now the doctor's gonna do all that he can. But what you're gonna need is an undertaker man. I ain't had nothin' but bad news. Now I got the crazy blues.

Play on you old Jazz Hounds you, play on.


  1. There must be a film in that story.

  2. There may be. When I get around to writing it.

  3. Philip Morgan commented on Facebook:

    Philip wrote
    "Fascinating piece and I don't even like Jazz."

  4. Michael Clark commented on Facebook:

    Wow!!! Rock and Roll but 40 years before 'Rock and Roll' that is really cool Andi